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Hunger for Political Power Sends Stem Cell Science Spinning

By Ellen Goodman, Washington Post Writers Group, June 15, 2007

The debate over stem cell research is enough for people to think that the science is tinted if not entirely tainted by politics. Evolution and global warming arguments have produced strong proponents on both sides of the debate. At times, enough to throw people in the middle into absolute confusion.

However, the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells has trumped all over the past six years and has polarized a nation and a world. The power and influence that the topic of embryonic stem cells has become so great that politicians who don't even have the slightest clue regarding the science are attempting to take sides in the debate to gain power.

So it is not surprising to see genuine scientific breakthroughs, the kind that have the potential to change medicine, become twisted be the political spin. Last week, ordinary mouse skin cells were changed into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. The revolutionary finding was accomplished by 3 separate teams of researchers, two from the U.S. and one from Japan. Without destroying embryos, the potential to create powerful stem cells ethically was accomplished. The research was published in the two highly respected scientific journals, Cell Stem Cell and Nature.

As the House was voting to allow federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, the announcement was made. The room full of politicians, suddenly being pulled in two completely separate ways by scientific fact in one direction and perhaps political greed in another, exploded.

The irony of having breakthrough announcements every time a bill comes up for a vote was brought up by Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel. More conspiracy theories were pushed by embryonic stem cell supporters. Higher intervention was even suggested by opponents such as Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Half jokingly, he said that, "God is telling us He is there!"

Despite the find, the bill still passed and now heads over to President Bush. One can bank on the president saying that embryos aren't necessary while citing the recent research if he vetoes the bill, which will almost assuredly be the case.

For a brief lesson in stem cells we can begin by saying that scientists don't know how to do it perfectly yet, but they want to try and fix certain illnesses we have with regenerative medicine. Basically, they want to create a liver cell, brain cell, heart cell, or any other type from a simple ordinary cell taken from the human body.

Embryonic stem cells seem like a logical place to start to try and achieve this. Researchers choose embryonic stem cells not due to political allegiances, or government pressures. The reason researchers choose to work with embryonic stem cells is because they believe that they have the potential to form these tissues without any major scientific tinkering. Embryonic cells can turn into any cell because the have signals within them that prompt the cells to differentiate. But there is one major issue, embryos have to be destroyed in order to harvest these cells. There was no other way around it, until now.

The use of embryos may be avoided once and for all if ordinary cells in the body can be reprogrammed to act like embryonic cells. The latest breakthrough suggests that this is indeed the case.

But there is a long road to see if this will work in humans, considering the breakthrough was made using mice.

Still the debate persists, however the case for non-embryonic research continues to grow stronger and stronger. With various sources such as amniotic fluid stem cells showing the full capability to differentiate in a research environment just as embryonic stem cells do, as well as the numerous cases of illness being treated with other forms of adult stem cells; the victories lie on the non-controversial side.

Today, as cell biologist Kenneth Miller notes, one side claims "we can do everything we need with adult stem cells." The other side says that "only embryonic stem cells have the full therapeutic potential that we need to save lives." In fact, adds Miller, "Neither side is right. We are far too early in the game to know."

Either way, for once in this administration it would be swell to see science trump its bully of a brother: political science.


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